Consular processing has undergone rapid and systemic changes during the past five years, and the rate and scope of change does not appear to be slowing. Enhanced security checks and inter-agency data sharing—among a massive wave of other changes—makes consular processing a daunting task that ensnare many unsuspecting visa applicants in problems and delays.
While many of the security measures were expected after 9/11, the effects were devastating to many U.S. visa applicants, who routinely encountered completely unpredictable surprises that caused unexpected and lengthy delays in visa issuance. These initial difficulties, delays and the resulting uncertainty for visa applicants and employers adversely impacted critical U.S. economic sectors including trade, tourism, scientific research, academia, and entertainment and business generally.
Newsweek recently published a story about an applicant’s experience with coming to America and the frustrations with this process.
When the American embassy called in August 2004, I was just nine days away from starting a job at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. I had already shipped my possessions from Geneva, Switzerland, where I was living, to Indiana, and enrolled my kids in a school near our new home. Suddenly, however, an embassy official was telling me my visa had been revoked. I was “welcome to reapply,” the official said, but no reason was offered for my rejection. Sitting in a barren apartment, I decided the process had become too unpredictable; I didn’t want to keep my family in limbo, so I resigned my professorship before it began. I launched a legal battle instead.
It was hardly a fight I had expected. Less than a year earlier, the State Department had invited me to speak in Washington, D.C., and introduced me as a “moderate” Muslim intellectual who denounced terrorism and attacks against civilians. Now it was banning me from U.S. soil under a provision of the Patriot Act that allows for “ideological exclusions.” My offense, it seemed, had been to forcefully criticize America’s support for Israel and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. accused me of endorsing terrorism through my words and funding it through donations to a Swiss charity with alleged ties to Gaza. Civil-liberties groups challenged my case in court for almost six years until, in late January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dropped the allegations against me, effectively ending my ban.
In early April I will make my first public appearance in the U.S., at New York City’s Cooper Union, participating in a panel discussion about Muslims. While it’s a victory of sorts, the fight is not over. Numerous foreign scholars remain banned from U.S. soil. Until the section of the Patriot Act that kept me out of the country is lifted, more people will suffer the same fate. Although the exclusions are carried out in the name of security and stability, they actually threaten both by closing off the open, critical, and constructive dialogue that once defined this country.
Security concerns are pivotal as the United States grapples with the dilemma of balancing legitimate international travel needs with the ever-present security risks facing the nation. Globalization has increased the frequency and necessity of travel to the United States by foreign nationals. While DOS has softened its approach from a “zero-tolerance” policy to a more open, “Secure Borders, Open Doors” policy, the government’s attempt to balance national security concerns with legitimate travel needs still leaves many visa applicants facing unpredictable delays and a myriad of potential pitfalls.